Are men becoming redundant?

Newsreader Michael Buerk claims that men are becoming redundant. A lot of women seem to agree, says Lucy Bulmer
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Not "is becoming", Michael - for many women, "has become". More young single men than single women now rate finding a partner to marry as a top priority, according to a survey also published last week. Women have become the new commitmentphobes.

Twelve-thousand singles were surveyed by the online dating site Gorgeous Networks, and the results turn one of our most widely accepted beliefs neatly on its head. While 51 per cent of men in their 20s said that finding a wife was their main priority in life, only 45 per cent of women of the same age felt the same way about marriage. The received wisdom that men chase women for sex but are afraid of being trapped, while women hanker after a ring on their finger, was demolished in one click of a computer mouse.

Take Jemima Khan. After a year of keeping us on the edge of our seats, one of the world's most eligible bachelors, Hugh Grant, popped the question - and the lucky girl said no and nonchalantly jetted off to her father's £8m estate in Spain for some fun in the sun - alone.

Hasangi Wickramaratne is a classic example of the new breed. Aged 26, she has a well-paid job as an accountant in the fashion industry, and is bringing up her six-year-old son alone - she split from his father before he was born. "I'm not one of those women who dream of a fairytale wedding," she says. "I have had a significant relationship since Kian was born, but I finished it because the man was threatened by the fact that I was independent - I think a lot of men are. But I'm not going to be dependent just because it massages some man's ego. I want to show my son that I have gone out and achieved, not just as a single parent but as a woman."

In her book Venus in Spurs: the Secret Female Fear of Commitment, Sheila Gillooly suggests that women have always had the same commitment fears as men: they just go about it differently. She thinks women have traditionally displaced the anxieties about life and relationships that create a commitmentphobe into the quest for a relationship, but set it up to fail. Like the girls in Sex and the City, they focus obsessively on trying to convince the man in their life that love and intimacy are good, while failing to look at their own conflicts about those issues.

Belinda, 28, recently split with her long-term partner because he wanted to settle and she didn't. "He was gorgeous, and would never have expected me to give up my career. He had a good job and I loved him. I must be mad. Something deep inside didn't want my single years to end just yet."

I know what Belinda is getting at. I got engaged once, in my late 20s, and I keenly remember the grumbling feelings of envy when I looked at other women who weren't sporting whopping diamonds on their ring fingers. They were still free! My fiancé, I now suspect, felt the same, and I think we were both relieved to call it a day.

Nine years and several proposals on from the father of my two children, I'm still not married. He's great and a fantastic dad, so what's the problem? I joke that living in sin is the only rock'n'roll bit left of my rebellious youth and I want to hang on to it. My partner just thinks I have issues with commitment - and he's probably right. So what makes a female commitmentphobe? Like the best of them I want to duck the issue, but if pushed I would say it was fear of losing myself, of someone else's needs overwhelming mine. It's pretty fundamental and it doesn't defy gender.

The sociologist Dr Roona Simpson, of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh, is very conscious of women's drift away from marriage, and believes there are enough socioeconomic reasons to explain it.

"Money and time are still shared unequally in relationships, and women's lives change most when marriage and children come along. They are still the ones doing most of the chores, and taking time off work when the children are ill. So you have the combination of big changes in women's economic opportunities combined with this very slow change in relationships, and it is putting them off marriage."

It's not as though many men are worth marrying for their money any more. Women are taking increasing financial responsibility within relationships, too. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, in the year 2003-04, one in five earned more than her partner, and that figure is growing. Fine, if your partner takes on the lion's share of domestic chores, but for many women, marriage means committing to hard work on both fronts.

Anya, 45, is discovering this for herself. She gave up a well-paid job in PR when her third child was born because the cost of child care would have wiped out her salary. But her husband, a telecoms engineer, earns much less than she did, and she now faces having to combine a family and full-time work again. "One solution would be for him to become a househusband, but he says to stay home with the kids would drive him mad. So what do we do? Stay poor?"

At the same time as younger women watch their older colleagues struggling and juggling, the option of not marrying is getting better all the time. With nearly 50 per cent of adults now single, any residual stigma of spinster status is falling away. And with news last week that consultation on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act may facilitate giving single women and lesbian couples increased rights to IVF, we have taken a step further in the acceptance of single motherhood without the mess of divorce.

But whatever the statistics say, they fail to include probably the most decisive factor when it comes to men and women and marriage: love. And that is why, reader, I am happy to announce that, now in my 40s, I am finally a reformed commitmentphobe. What cured me? My worst fears not being realised, and my realisation of how much I loved him. My wedding date is set.

'I don't want to live in the comfort zone'

Thea Montgomerie-Anderson, 29, from south London, works as a sales account manager in the City and is a committed singleton.

"When I was young, I thought I'd meet Prince Charming and drift down the aisle in white with six bridesmaids, but at about 16 I realised that just wasn't me, and began focusing on a career. The glamour of working and being independent really appealed to me. I loved the idea of doing what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it.

"Now I work hard and play hard. I earn good money - around £70,000 a year - and I enjoy the fact that no one else has a say in how it's spent. If I want to blow £500 in a beauty salon, or change jobs suddenly, it's my choice. No one else has to agree. It's a bit selfish, but it's the way I want to be.

"If you have kids or a partner, you can't focus 100 per cent on your self-development and career. Now, if I want to go to bed at 9pm three nights in a row, I can. Or if I want to stay out dancing in clubs all night, I can - and frequently do.

"I meet plenty of eligible guys, working in the City. Mostly, they're the settling-down type: steady, reliable and responsible, and looking for a nice girlfriend. But it leaves me cold. I'm frightened even to go out to dinner with them. I get so bored I sit there and imagine my head exploding.

"I do think young men want to settle down more than women these days. A lot of the men seem to want the girls to stay at home, playing the supportive wife. Even if they don't give up work, the woman's career almost always ends up coming second, especially when children arrive. I don't think I'll ever want to have children, because you can't be really independent then. Children are a lifelong responsibility, and I'm quite a risk-taker. I believe in getting as much experience of life as I can. I'm off to Thailand next month, and a girlfriend and I are going skydiving after that. I don't ever want to think: 'I wish I'd done that.' I'm not interested in stagnating.

"In an ideal world, I'd meet someone who also wanted to do all those things, but realistically I think it's unlikely. They might appear that way at first, but deep down most people want to settle down into a workaday, safe life. They want to live in the comfort zone, but that's just not for me. I do believe in love, but I don't see myself settling down for a long time yet. It would have to be nothing short of a miracle for me to give up the independence I have."